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U of I's $45 million CAFE project is underway

By Sean Ellis

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

POCATELLO – After nearly 15 years of being discussed, put on hold and then discussed again, the Idaho Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment is actually happening.

“Things are moving forward. It’s pretty exciting,” said Michael Parrella, dean of the University of Idaho’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, which is overseeing the $45 million CAFE project.

Initial soil sampling work is already being conducted on the land that will house a 2,000-cow dairy that will make CAFE the largest research dairy in the nation.

Researchers have collected more than 800 soil samples at the dairy site and the information obtained from those samples about soil structure and microbial content will be used as an important environmental baseline.

In addition to the 640-acre dairy site, the CAFE project will include an associated demonstration farm. Together, researchers will study both to address the connection between plant and animal agriculture.

Parrella said the dairy and associated crop research work will allow scientists to better integrate animal and plant agriculture.

“It will be a unique connection of research between animal and plant agriculture that doesn’t happen anywhere else in the United States for the most part,” he said. “That interaction between the dairy industry and plant agriculture is ripe for research and very few people have a site where you can do both of those things.”

The Idaho Dairymen’s Association provided $2 million toward the purchase of the 640-acre dairy site near Rupert, while the university provided $2.5 million and the Whitesides family, which owned the land, donated 100 acres. 

The plan is to have the dairy part of the project completed in 2023 and to begin milking cows there in the same year.

CAFE researchers will conduct cutting-edge research related to the state’s dairy industry, including dairy-related research on lagoons, nutrient management and surface and ground water contamination, and they will also conduct research on virtually every aspect of the state’s agricultural industry, from water use efficiency to soil health and fertility, crop rotations, forage cropping and agronomy, animal genetic improvement, labor management, precision agriculture and food science and manufacturing.

Idaho is the No. 3 state in the nation in milk production and the dairy industry ranks No. 1 in the state in total farm cash receipts. A third of Idaho’s total farm cash receipts come from the dairy industry.

IDA Executive Director Rick Naerebout said the research that will be conducted at the dairy that will focus on nutrient management and environmental sustainability is what is most exciting to Idaho’s dairy industry.

“Our environmental sustainability is our primary focus with our investment in the research dairy,” Naerebout said. “We want to make sure our industry continues to advance in that regard and we want to see Idaho be a leader on that front.”

He said consumers are wanting to know “more and more about where their food comes from and they want to know it’s being produced in a sustainable way. We think the research that will be done there will help us continue to meet those consumer expectations.”

More money still has to be raised to complete the project but a substantial amount has already been raised.

Idaho lawmakers in 2017 provided $10 million in state funds for CAFE and said they would favorably consider providing another $5 million as the project progresses.

USDA in July announced it has provided a $10 million research grant for CAFE. That money will be used by 21 faculty in agriculture and engineering to evaluate the use of bio-products from dairy waste streams to provide economic opportunities for the state’s dairy industry.

“There may be a time when the water and the nutrients from dairies will be worth as much as the milk they produce,” CALS Associate Dean for Research Mark McGuire said in a news release announcing the USDA grant.

That USDA-funded project will seek to create useful bio-products from dairy manure that can be sold for use in crop production or value-added products such as plastics.

Also in July, Anheuser-Busch announced it will contribute $200,000 toward the research that will be conducted at the demonstration farm, including research on water use efficiency, soil health, crop rotations and cover crops.

Anheuser-Busch gets about 50 percent of the malt it uses for beer production from Idaho, which is the nation’s top barley-producing state.

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation will contribute a total of $100,000 over five years toward the CAFE project.

IFBF President Bryan Searle, a farmer from Shelley, said Farm Bureau members are impressed with the university’s vision for CAFE.

In a letter of support for the project, Searle said that CAFE “will enhance a national and international reputation that will reflect the size, quality and importance of the industry it represents and strengthen Idaho’s position on the map as a center for agricultural and food innovation and technology.”

He also said IFBF “recognizes the impact CAFE will have across our entire agricultural industry and the value that will provide to our members and all Idaho producers.”

The dairy will have a robotic milking parlor and the ability to process manure into value-added material.

The CAFE project will include a food processing pilot plant that will be located on the College of Southern Idaho campus in Twin Falls, and an outreach and education center that will be located on a parcel of land at the crossroads where Interstate 84 and Highway 93 meet near Twin Falls.

The outreach and education center will conduct agricultural advocacy and teach Idahoans where their food comes from. Searle said that is an exciting component of CAFE because “that’s what Farm Bureau is all about: advocating for agriculture.”